The train of destruction that is the Islamic State – ISIS, as people know it – has taken Middle East Christians in Syria and Iraq by storm.
In Lebanon, the ruling formula that the country has adopted for so many years is crumbling, strained by the growing Sunni/Shiite war raging in neighbouring Syria, leaving the fate of Lebanon’s Christians as a question mark.
In Egypt, the hopes of deliverance at the hands of its latest military ruler have not materialised with the situation of Christians in that country continuing to deteriorate.
These times are indeed depressing, where hardly any corner of the Middle East brings any good news – about the region as a whole or about the region’s Christians, in particular.
But before we can address whether Christians have a future in the Middle East, it is perhaps important and necessary to begin by talking about their past, about who those people are, about how they survived for such a long time, and about why this moment in time might be so different.
The history of Christianity and the Middle East
Christianity was born in the Middle East. For many centuries, in late antiquity, Christianity was largely a Middle Eastern story. That fact seems to be forgotten today. Perhaps it is because of the years of isolation of Middle Eastern Christians from the rest of Christendom. Perhaps it is the decline of Middle Eastern Christianity, no longer the centre of Christendom that drove people to forget that, for many centuries, the centre of the world of Christianity was in the Middle East.
Of the four churches, or the four pillars of Christianity in late antiquity, three were in the Middle East: Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople. The early ecumenical councils of the churches – were all held in the Middle East. The leading figures in those early debates and schisms were all Middle Eastern Christians. Arius, Athanasius, Nestorius and Cyril – these were all Middle Eastern Christians, fighting, debating, defining for us what it meant to be Christian and what we believe, until today, the Nicene Creed was formed by these Middle Eastern Christian men.
The school of Alexandria, renowned for its theological acclaim, producing men like Clement of Alexandria and Origen, set the date of Easter for the rest of Christendom. To its west, in Tunisia, it was Saint Augustine whose writings defined Christianity. To its east were the Cappadocian Fathers; pillars of the church up to this day were Basil and Gregory. In the deserts of Egypt, monasticism was born, at the hands of Saint Antony the Great.
Now this important role that the Middle East played began to end by the fifth and sixth centuries. Two phenomena led to this. The first was that the growing fights within Eastern Christianity had bloodied it, had torn it apart with the growing schisms inside of it. In 431 AD the Church of the East – or the Assyrian Church, as it is known today – broke from the rest of Christianity following the Council of Ephesus.
Twenty years later, it was the turn of the Copts in Egypt to break, following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. These were followed by the Syriacs and the Armenians, who formed what we know today as Oriental Orthodox to distinguish it from the Eastern Orthodox of Greece, Russia, Serbia and other countries.
The second major event was, of course, the coming of the Arabs and Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula, creating a geographic border, a wall of separation between Eastern and Western Christianity – a wall of separation that continued very much until our modern times.
Under the Arab-Muslim rule, many factors formed the role of Christians and are important to highlight as they continue to shape the way Middle Eastern Christianity behaves and is formed.
The first is the framework. In the West, the struggle was between popes and rulers, between Fredericks and Henrys and the popes who had the power in Europe at the time. In the East, the Middle Eastern Christians and their churches had to live under the framework of a different religion, of rulers that came from a different religion. That did not mean that they were isolated completely from politics. In fact, it meant that these churches often acted as representatives of their community.
Eastern popes became leaders of Christian communities, both internally and in front of the state. A pope was expected to collect the jizya, the money that the Christians were supposed to be paying for the state, and was punished by the state if he didn’t. That role of the popes, of the clergy, as leaders of their community, continued until today. Naturally it meant, with the church playing such an important role, that the state, the Caliphs, the rulers, would find it important for them to interfere in church affairs – to try to appoint bishops or popes, to try to medal in church affairs.
The legal framework or the framework that Middle Eastern Christianity lived under – the rule of Islam – was that of Dhimmitude. Dhimmitude took two forms. The first is the legal framework: Christians were protected second class citizens, expected to pay the jizya, not able to serve in the military, and not able to carry arms to protect themselves. This was not only a legal framework, but also a social one. The verse in the Quran that was the basis for that formula stated that until Christians paid the jizya, they were in a state of subjugation, of inferiority, until they recognised that they are inferior. This was the land of Islam; Islam was to be supreme in that land and, as such, Middle Eastern Christians needed to acknowledge this. This applied not only to Christians but, of course, also the Jews that lived in that time in the land of Islam.
What this meant, in practice, were restrictions on their lives that were intended to make them feel inferior, to make them acknowledge the superiority of Islam in its own land. Such citizens were not able to ride horses, for example. This was written in the codes of the time: not being able to have any Muslim servants; certain dress codes they were supposed to wear at certain times; hazel clothes at certain times, black, blue. The colour itself might change but the idea that they were different and needed to be identified as different was constant throughout those years. And then there was the command that no new churches be built in that land.
All of this was framed under a pact invented in the Middle Ages but given a heritage, a frame of history, called the Umar Pact, supposedly conducted between the Second Caliph of Islam, Omar bin Khattab, and between the Christians of Syria or of the Levant.
That framework, of course, necessitated a response by Middle Eastern Christians. The first response of these people pertained to language. These people talked a variety of languages, Coptic in Egypt, Aramaic, the various languages of the region. Arabic became the dominant language and naturally these Christians had to adopt to become civil servants, not high ranking ones, such places were not always open to them, but to survive in that state they needed to learn the language of the rulers – and they did. Naturally, what followed was the continued decline of Middle Eastern original languages. Copts in Egypt today no longer speak Coptic, for example. A few clergymen might know the language but, for the rest of the population, the religion itself became Arabized; the language of prayers became largely Arabic in their churches.
Conversion was, naturally, the second. We don’t have accurate figures from the time of when conversion happened, when the Middle East became majority Muslim. It was a slow process. Sometimes it was through violence, often it was simple assimilation; following the people – your neighbours – and becoming like them, step by step throughout the centuries. Sometimes it was the poor segments of the Christian population that could not afford to pay the jizya and at other times it was the top levels who thought to acquire the benefits of becoming Muslims by rising up in the bureaucracy and the civil service.
The fate of Middle Eastern Christians in those years was often a twin face story of survival and decline, of endurance and of decay at the same time. Years of persecution were followed by years of peacefulness, of tolerance. This up-and-down continued until modern times.
The Middle East and the crisis of modernity
Modernity was brought to the region by a curious man. A French officer, quite ambitious, by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte, decided to come to Egypt. The land of the pharaohs was a curious place to start an empire for the French in the East. He arrived in Alexandria on 1 July 1798. When the news of Napoleon’s arrival came to the Mamluks, the rulers or the ruling fighting class of Egypt at the time, a Mamluk replied, “Let all the Franks come and we shall crush them beneath our horses hooves.” The use of the word “Franks” and not “Frenchmen” is, of course, interesting, and reflects the mentality of the time. The last time the East, the world of Islam, had met the West was during the Crusades, when the Franks and all the other Europeans had come and had occupied the land for two centuries. In the end, Islam had won – the “Franks” had been kicked out.
The idea that something had happened in between, that the Franks were no longer “Franks” but modern Frenchmen, was completely absent. When the two armies finally met in the Battle of the Pyramids 20 days later, the hooves of the horses did not exactly crush the Frenchmen. The Mamluks were slaughtered as they faced the modern weapons of the time – the cannons of the modern French army.
This brought the crisis of modernity to the Middle East. The question, as acclaimed historian Bernard Lewis put it, was: What went wrong? Why had the Franks turned into Frenchmen? What had happened to them that made them now more successful, superior, technologically advanced, and so on? And the more important question how to catch up. How could the East become like them?
Modernity gave birth to a number of important phenomena. First, European involvement in the region increased. The French were kicked out, in three years, by a combined British and Ottoman military campaign, but the British themselves occupied the country eighty years later. In the Levant, however, French influence grew and in the Maghreb in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, countries quickly fell to French rule. Hardly any place in the Middle East was completely isolated from this growing European influence.
Modernisation at the hands of the rulers quickly followed. Native rulers and occupiers brought modern schools, modern ideas. Christians largely benefited from this. They were more willing, by virtue of being Christians, to become or to join the modern schools that were being opened by both the modernising rulers and by the missionaries at the time. They were more willing to take the opportunities that modern education offered them. Besides education, modernisation and modernity brought the question of nationalism to the region for the first time, the question of who the people were, how to identify themselves, was brought to the region. Before that everyone was an Ottoman subject, the Ottoman Empire ruled from Morocco until Iran. It had reached the gates of Vienna twice; it had been one of the grandest empires of the Muslim world.
Suddenly, that empire was falling apart, and people began asking: Are we Muslims? Are we Christians? Are we Ottomans? Are we Arabs? Are we Egyptians? Are we Syrians? What do these all mean? Who are we? That questioning began in the western provinces of the empire, in Serbia and in Greece where there had been the Greek revolt of 1821, but it quickly spread to the east, where the question of identity would dominate the region.
Ethnic wars grew. In 1860, came the famous massacres of Christians by their Druze and Muslim neighbours, giving birth to immigration. Islamism was also born at that time. The answer by some Muslim intellectuals, to the question of what had gone wrong and how to catch up, was to advocate a return to earlier days when Islam was dominant. By returning to those older days, by returning to the Salaf, the devout predecessors or ancestors, a return to Muslims being supreme and successful in the world.
For Middle East Christians, the affects of modernity were varied. First, it made them a bridge between the East and the West with one leg in each world, the necessary bridge between the two civilisations. Often it was Greeks and Armenians that acted as ambassadors, emissaries, translators for the Ottoman sultans in the court. Other Middle Eastern minorities began to follow the same route, becoming traders with the representatives of Western governments, taking that role as a link between two civilisations. It gave them opportunities of advancement, better education, made them more equipped for the challenges of this modern world.
It also opened the door for the foreign missionaries to come to the region. Protestantism began to reach the region, often with mixed results. My favourite story of Protestant missionaries was of a missionary reaching Asyut in the south of Egypt in the 1860s. On meeting the local bishop, he informed him that he had come to bring Copts to live with Christ. The confused bishop replied that his community had been living with Christ for 1800 years. He asked the missionary when he had came to know Christ? Such missionaries had a variety of impacts: they challenged the authority of the local churches and took some of their members, but they also brought modern education and advances to Middle Eastern Christians.
Some Middle Eastern Christians benefited from the idea of foreign protectors, of foreign powers, being interested in their fate. Russia quickly became the protector of the Orthodox in the region; France acted as the protector of the Catholics, especially the Maronites in Lebanon. In other cases, the foreign occupiers were actually not favourably disposed towards the minorities – such as in the case of Egypt where the British thought that dealing through the Muslims was much better than dealing with the Christians whom they tended to discriminate against in the civil service.
In general, modernity offered Middle Eastern Christians an opportunity to change their reality. They began to take that opportunity. For many of them, it was a demand for equality. Modern ideas were coming from Europe – not only nationalism but ideas from the French revolution, of being equal citizens, of citizenship itself. So we see a growing tendency for Middle Eastern Christians to demand the removal of the legal framework of Dhimmitude, but also to be allowed to serve in the military and not to have to pay the jizya. Such reforms came to the Ottoman Empire in the 1850s and 1860s. But there was also emigration – Lebanese and Syrian Christians emigrated to the West, to North America and South America after the 1860s massacres of Christians in the Levant.
The paradoxes of Arab nationalism
And then there was Arab nationalism, curiously born at the hands of Middle Eastern Christians in the Levant, who thought that an Arab identity could become a suitable identity to bring Christians and Muslims together, instead of the religious divide. So, in a curious twist of fate, Arab nationalism was born at the hands of Middle Eastern Christians: on one side, the leader of the Syrian National Socialist party in Lebanon, at the hands of Michel Aflaq, another Christian in Syria, the Ba’ath party, George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh of the Palestinian Christians.
But the dreams of independence were quickly turned into nightmares. Instead of independence bringing more equality for Middle Eastern Christians, it brought more challenges for them. First was the forced Arabization of the schools, of education, of every aspect of life. Arabization meant the removal of the uniqueness of cultures; the Aramaic, the Syriac, the Copts could no longer find their place in the public square. Everyone had to adopt the collective identity of being Arab.
In the Middle East, identity is always dealt with as a hat. You can either be a Christian, or an Arab, a Muslim or a Syrian. You cannot be both; you cannot wear two hats at the same time. So the forced identity, the forced Arabization of those societies, posed a challenge to the local communities, with that conformity being forced on people. Often Arabization was not very different from Islamization. In the case of Egypt, for example, where the Free Officers Movement, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, began an Arabization and Islamization of the educational system; excluding Copts, reinforcing the idea that Egypt is an Islamic country despite maintaining a secular framework.
Independence also brought authoritarian rulers to power such as after coups in Syria and Iraq, and with Nasser in Egypt. These authoritarian rulers affected everyone; they brought about the notorious intelligence services, police states, torture affecting both Christians and Muslims throughout the region. But the fight with the West and Israel especially touched Christian lives – as non-Muslims, their loyalty was often suspect. If the West was the enemy, no differentiation could be made between the West and Christianity; it was all one thing. And if Israel was the enemy, and the Jews were the enemies, then Middle Eastern Christians were also suspect. Where did their loyalty stand? Was it with the West or was it with the Arab countries themselves?
The fight with the West brought that pressure on Middle Eastern Christians, a pressure that continued with all the horrors of the Lebanese civil war from 1975 until 1992. Islamism grew as a threat in the region, in Egypt in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in Syria until the massacre of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982. But the Islamists were not the only threat to Middle Eastern Christians. Often, it was the states themselves. Claiming to be secular, they had to out Islamize the Islamists, they had to enforce their own discrimination on Christians in order not to allow the Islamists to take the high ground in that fight
Restrictions grew on the building of churches in Egypt where, in order not just to build a church but even to build a bathroom in a church, you needed the President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, to sign a piece of paper allowing it. That restriction remained until 2005 when, for the first time, building bathrooms was something that the president no longer had to deal with and it was left to local governors.
Immigration to the West was naturally an answer for many Middle Eastern Christians. But the decline of Middle Eastern Christianity is not only a story that began with ISIS or with the horrors that we see in Syria or Iraq, but came with economic constraints, with persecution and discrimination. It is an ongoing story. You have in Australia, in Canada, in the United States, growing Middle Eastern Christian communities. They have grown from the 1970s and the 1980s, people fleeing those threats in the region.
Lastly, it was the relationship with rulers that many Middle Eastern Christian churches developed. Perhaps it was a lesson of minorities throughout time; the ruler can protect, the ruler can stop the pogrom from taking place, the ruler can offer some sort of protection in the face of the Islamist threat. So it’s no surprise, given the role that the churches had played historically, from the start of the rule of Islam, as representatives of their community, that these churches would develop close relationships with the ruling regimes, as these were their protectors.
The tyranny of the mob
Christians were hardly fooled by the promise of the Arab Spring. True, some of the youth thought that in a moment of enthusiasm change can take place. But for many of those minorities it was again the eternal lesson of minorities; a lesson learned by Jews throughout the Middle Ages in Poland, for example. Better the persecuting tyrant than the mob. With the tyrant, you can buy him off, you can use international pressure, you can persuade him. With the mob you stand no chance.
The Arab Spring brought three challenges, three frameworks, three fault lines to the region. The first was that the collapse of regimes was often occupied by the collapse of the state itself. This was true in countries that had no real basis for their identity, no collective identity. Where the borders had been arbitrarily drawn by the occupiers, the French and the British or the Italians, and where no basis for a collective identity had been developed. This is true of Libya, for example, where the collapse of the Gaddafi regime was not only a collapse of a regime, but meant the collapse of the very idea of a Libyan state. It is true in Syria, in Iraq following the fall off Saddam Hussein, in Yemen. That collapse of the state meant a collapse in basic law and order, security, any form of protection that existed for people.
It meant not only the growth of Islamists on the national level but also the growth of Islamists power on the local level, where you have local Islamists in a small remote village in Egypt attempting to enforce their views on the local Christians – forcing young Christian girls to be veiled, for example, and a growth in kidnappings of Middle Eastern Christians in Egypt, in Syria, in Iraq. There has been a growth of blasphemy accusations on the local level, where a Christian would suddenly find himself accused of insulting Islam for posting something on Facebook. There is a case in Egypt where someone received 6 years in prison for being tagged in a photo on Facebook. Anyone who uses Facebook knows being tagged is not something you actually do in the first place. Such accusations have grown.
The second problem the Arab Spring introduced was that by removing the power of the dictators, by removing the police state, it brought to the forefront the hatreds that had been brewing for centuries between ethnic and religious groups. These hatreds are not the creation of those regimes and are not the creations of the West; they’ve been there for centuries. But by removing the dictator, in the case of Iraq at the hands of the American invasion in 2003 or in the case of Syria at the hands of the people rising in rebellion against the dictator, those ethnic and religious divides became a clear divide that people now are fighting over.
The major fault line has been the Sunni/Shiite divide. In Iraq this began with the Americans removing the largely Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein, and Shiites gaining power as the majority. In Syria, a Sunni majority had been, for decades, persecuted and dominated by an Alawite minority. Once the regimes fell, the Sunni/Shiite divide became the most important, with Sunnis and Shiites fighting in the region and with the regional protectors and finances both in Iran and Saudi Arabia using Syria or Iraq as a proxy war. The Sunnis and the Shiites have their own armies and their own battles, the Christians have none of these. They are caught in the middle.
Lastly there is the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), with its specific kind of horror, different from all the horrors that we had seen before. It’s remarkable that fourteen years after 9/11, we’re now thinking about al-Qaeda as the lesser of the evils, because we’ve seen the worse evil in the form of ISIS. God knows what we might say in the next ten years or so.
Why the future is bleak
So where does this leave Middle Eastern Christians? Do Christians have a future in the region or not? Unfortunately, the outlook is not optimistic. It is important to mention that even before the rise of ISIS, Middle Eastern Christianity was in decline. In 1910, greater Syria, the Levant, was about 30% Christian. Syria, before the revolution, was about 8%. If there is a Syria in the future, there is no telling what the Christian percentage would be. This is true across the region. Iraqi Christians, before the American invasion, numbered 1.5 million; today they are less than 300,000. That decline has been going on for a while and is not only the result of the growth of ISIS today.
Certainly ISIS is the latest threat. Unfortunately it’s a threat that we don’t seem to have an answer for. Despite a military campaign, led by the West for the past year, ISIS has not been defeated – and, in fact, it’s growing. Not only is it now in control of a major piece of territory, stretching from Iraq to Syria, it also has the allegiance of various groups from Boko Haram in Nigeria, from three Libyan affiliates in Libya, from a local presence in the Sinai of the Wilayat Sinai. Even in Afghanistan there is an affiliate of the Islamic state. Its threat does not seem to be about to be defeated.
This means that Middle Eastern Christians who are threatened – specifically those of Iraq and Syria – are not likely to be able to go back home anytime soon. Even if we are able to defeat this threat, perhaps in five years time, to end the horror that the Islamic State represents, the natural question is: if they go home, will they find their homes empty? The answer is unfortunately, no.
Much like Polish Jewish survivors of the Holocaust returning to their homes in Poland to find other Poles living there, people that take residence in the wake of mass displacement are not willing to give up those places. Then there is the added factor of returning to homes and to neighbours that would not open their mouths when they saw you rounded up, did not open their mouths when they saw the letter “N” in Arabic being written on your homes, did not open their mouths when you were being slaughtered – how would you live again with these neighbours in the same place? And if that was to happen, who guarantees that you will be protected in the future, that this will not happen again?
Today many Middle Eastern Christians have escaped to Lebanon. Lebanon was a country originally conceived for Middle Eastern Christians – for the Maronites, specifically – and it’s now home to over one million Syrian refugees, many of them Christians. But the solution is not always a happy one. Iraqi Christians escaped to Syria following 2006 when the sectarian horrors were real, and the Chaldean Christians had no protection.
In Syria, they thought they had a safe haven, only for them to be joined by the Syrian Christians themselves, escaping from the horror that became Syria. Is Lebanon’s stable? For how long can Lebanon sustain itself while the Sunni/Shiite civil war is raging on in its neighbour Syria? Is Jordan – another place that has been welcoming to Christians – stable? How long can Jordan sustain the fact that it has one million refugees that are adding to the divide in the country between the East Bankers and the West Bankers. Regional migration might be a temporary solution, but unfortunately it is not a permanent one.
Others might believe that the solution is allowing the Christians to protect themselves by giving them arms. In the modern Middle East, the only minorities that have managed to survive, as my colleague Walter Russell Mead has pointed out, are those who have acquired military capabilities. These are the minorities that were able to defend themselves, either by creating a complete state (in the case of Israel) or by creating a semi-autonomous state (as for the Kurds), or at least by protecting their own mountains (as in the case of the Druze and the Maronites).
Unfortunately there is no longer any Christian presence in a specific geographic location that would allow the creation of a safe haven or a country of their own. There is simply no place for them, no mountain for them, that would protect them. And the geography, that for so many centuries favoured the minorities – whether it was the south of Egypt away from the centre of authority in Cairo allowing a huge Christian presence continuing in that place, or the mountains in Levant that allowed the Maronites to survive – is no longer able to protect them from modern weapons and technology.
For many Middle Eastern Christians, the only answer is emigration, to pack their bags, to pack 2,000 years of history and leave the lands of their ancestors and go to the West, hoping for an open door there. The Middle East will lose a lot by their emigration. The rich historic mosaic that is the Middle East will no longer be there. Instead, it will be a Middle East that will no longer have the Maronites, the Melkites, the Yazidis and the Mandaeans, the mosaic that for so long survived. It will no longer have those communities that were the bridge between the East and the West. In this exodus of minorities, the Middle East will not only lose a number of its citizens, large or small, it will more importantly lose many of its best educated people, the minds that would be able to build those countries.
If the fate of Christians in the Middle East, in their own homelands, is one of decline, it is one of flourishing in the West. In 1971, when Pope Shenouda became pope of the Coptic Church in Egypt, there were seven Coptic churches worldwide outside of the Middle East – two in Australia, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne. When he died in 2012, there were more than 50 Coptic churches in Australia and a total of more than 600 churches around the world. There are more than 200 in the United States, 60 in Canada. There are Coptic churches even in Latin America, in places where you wouldn’t imagine that you would find the Copts.
Copts are living, are flourishing, and are acquiring new converts. The Coptic Church today is a growing phenomenon in sub Saharan Africa where half a million Africans find this church appealing given the lack of history of colonialism associated with it. And it is an African church which began in Alexandria.
While the story in the Middle East might be one of decline and decay, the story of Middle Eastern Christians in the land of immigration is flourishing and is one of survival.